Addressing the state of the media

Posted: 12 February 2007 | News - Media Release | Categories: Gender, Children, Race, Xenophobia and Ethnicity, Democracy and Governance, HIV and AIDS, Media Freedom and Performance

Following President Mbeki’s state of the nation address, the Media Monitoring Project (MMP) would like to add the following state of the media in South Africa observations. In line with the MMP’s mandate we looked at a number of human rights issues and their relationship to the media. These include press freedom, race and racism, gender, HIV and AIDS, children, and the local government elections.

It is worrying that media freedom in South Africa has had a number of challenges in the past year, this in spite of it being constitutionally guaranteed.  A free media has a critical role to play in acting as a watch dog.  In the last year there were some very disturbing events, including the attempted gagging of the media, talk of pre-publication censorship in the Film and Publications Act (FPA) of 2005 and increasing criticism of media.  MMP notes with concern an increase in court cases against media as a means of silencing critical journalism.  Those who are concerned for media freedom are filled with fear and trepidation at the possible introduction of pre-publication censorship in the Film and Publications act of 2005.  Although it is essential that the challenges posed by child pornography should be addressed, MMP feels that anyone who cares about free speech and media freedom should oppose the FPA in its current form.

Tabloidisation of the news has been increasing for a number of years in South Africa, and is often typified by dramatic, personal and in many instances mythical reporting.  While tabloids have introduced newspapers to millions of new readers, and some provide informative content on the inner pages.  Often the reporting in some of these tabloids is not only sensationalist in nature, lacking context and leading with shocking visuals and inflammatory headlines, but they are also blatantly sexist and frequently xenophobic.  As a result journalistic practices of ethical conduct are sometimes sidelined by such tabloids.  This leads to lower-quality news and less regard for human rights.

Coverage of race in the context of the tabloids is particularly problematic.  Focused, clear and informative media coverage of race issues is particularly important in South Africa, given our history of racial segregation.  The media has the ability to perpetuate and challenge stereotypes in South Africa.  It is therefore particularly troubling to see coverage by media of race lacking this socio-historical context, as it often tends to support and perpetuate stereotypes.  Some media are actively xenophobic, creating stereotypes of people from the rest of Africa which are dangerous, offensive and harmful1.

The picture of gender, as reflected in the media, is mixed for 2006.  In 2005, for the first time, more women were quoted in coverage of the 16 days of activism than men.  This is a good sign, as women are most frequently the victims of gender-based violence. Coverage of Women’s Day in 2006 was also positive, with the 50th year anniversary of the women’s march against passes2.  MMP also observed how corporate companies appreciated the importance of the anniversary and placed adverts acknowledging the contribution of women, both past and present3.  However, last year some shocking visuals of women who had been murdered or abused appeared in newspapers4.  The visuals often had no context and appeared to infringe the women’s right of dignity and privacy, and also reflected an insensitivity to the phenomenon of gender based violence which is concerning.  These visuals also serve to trivialise gender based violence.  The coverage of various sexual harassment cases last year, with words such as ‘sex pest’ used to describe these cases trivialise the cases against the perpetrators.  In addition, there appears to be an ongoing tendency to cover women as if they were outside society.  For example women are seldom pictured when issues of unemployment and underemployment are discussed.  Labour issues are also often covered as if men are the only workers.  Women are still quoted less than men generally and are still virtually absent from business coverage5.  The MMP urges tabloid and business media to mainstream gender and gender based violence into all areas of their media coverage.

HIV and AIDS is a difficult area for media to cover, as it requires a level of scientific knowledge to understand the various terms.  It also requires careful attention to detail in order to provide quality information which is accurate and understandable.  HIV and AIDS coverage in the media continues as it has for a while, with media focusing on political debates more commonly than featuring those affected and infected.  Prevention messages in reporting are seldom repeated in commercial mass media, perhaps as a result of an assumption that everyone is familiar with these messages.  However, studies show that sexual behaviour continues to be unsafe6.  It is apparent that, although media, quite correctly are quick to criticise government and HIV dissidents when they serve to support myths about HIV and AIDS, it sometimes serves to support myths itself.  This can be seen from the recent coverage of halting of one of six microbicide trials which are currently taking place.  Coverage by some media encouraged stereotypes (such as calling study participants guinea pigs) and promoted myths about HIV.  Addressing HIV requires ongoing, informative, accurate and diverse reporting.  It is imperative that journalists in newsrooms are given the necessary resources to report to the best of their ability.

Children continue to be covered mainly as victims of abuse7.  Often children abused are pictured or otherwise identified.  This is constitutes a double infringement of their rights.  In the first instance by the abuser and in the second the media.  Children are afforded special protection under the UN resolution of the rights of the child, as well a s substantial constitutional protection.  A positive sign on coverage of children is the development of Kids News Room (KNR) on SABC.  It would seem that the SABC is not only meeting their public service mandate8 but in this case exceeding it, in the production and broadcasting of this innovative programme.  KNR offers news for children that is educative and informative9.

The MMP, in line with previous monitoring, monitored the Local Government Elections coverage in the run up and immediately after the elections for 2005 and 2006.  Accurate and relevant coverage of different parties which is also critical and independent is very important if citizens are to make an informed choice in voting for government.  It is difficult to cover issues relating the local government elections because of their ‘local’ nature.  The MMP only monitored Gauteng-based newspapers, and news and current affairs programmes for all television channels.  In general, party manifestos and campaigning received the greatest quantity of coverage, with a lack of coverage of local issues, with the exception of the public service protests.  Prominent people and political parties received considerable coverage, to the detriment to local personalities and candidates10. In 2007, the Media Monitoring Project will continue its work in support of the media in 2007.  Highlights for the coming year will include:

  • The Gender Media Messages project looking at whether gender organisations are getting their messages into the media, thanks to the support of the Heinrich Boell Foundation.
  • The roll-out and training on software (Monitoring Made Easy - Gender) aimed at equipping gender organisations and other interested parties in monitoring the media11, kindly made possible by the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa (OSISA).
  • The third year of the Children’s media mentoring project12 which brings children and journalists together to improve the practice of covering children whilst equipping children with critical media literacy skills.
  • The Make Abuse Disappear Online Advocacy Tool (MADOAT) continues to seek to make people aware of the coverage of children in the media and advocate for change13 kindly supported by UNICEF.


1See the Revealing race report and Shades of prejudice report

2Women’s Day report coming soon

3See Gallery of women’s day adverts

4For example see recent update

5See Global Media Monitoring Report (South African Country report)

6See results from the MAP HIV study

7See Empowering children and the media report

8See for a discussion around the blacklist see Whose blacklist is it anyway?

9See What children want

10The full LGE report is due for release soon.

11See support page 

12See Children’s mentoring resource

13www.getmad.co.za